Preaching across languages and cultures

Preaching across languages and cultures: Some cautions and suggestions

Preaching outside of one's own cultural and linguistic comfort zone poses potential challenges. Here are some solid principles, from a writer who has preached throughout the world, that address these challenges.

Jerry Schmalenberger, DMin, is the retired president of Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary, Berkeley, California, United States. He is now serving as a Global Mission Volunteer for the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, presently teaching practical theology in Hong Kong, China, and Sumatra, Indonesia.

My presentation was a disaster. I itched from salt water, I confused the congregation, and embarrassed myself trying, through the use of humor, to relieve some of the century-old tensions between two Lutheran groups suspicious of each other.

In the early ’70s, I was invited to be the speaker at the first-time-ever gathering of members of some different Lutheran congregations in Recife, Brazil. It was my first opportunity to preach with the use of an interpreter.

We were on a tour of South America sponsored by the Board of World Missions of the Lutheran Church in America (LCA). One of our first stops was the Roman Catholic Seminary of Nobel Peace Prize nominee, Dom Helder Camera, in Olinda, Brazil. We wanted to learn more about liberation theology and the poor.

In the afternoon my wife and I went to the beautiful sandy beach and swam in the Atlantic Ocean. We returned to the seminary for a shower before I was to preach that evening—only to find there was no water. I dressed in my clerics and was driven to the church on that very hot, humid evening. The sanctuary was packed. When I perspired, the dried sand and salt on my skin ran down my body and burned. I kept squinting my eyes because they stung from the salt water dripping into them.

The content of my sermon was so American Culture-bound that the congregation was puzzled. I tried humorous stories I had used before, but by the time they got through the interpreter into Portuguese, they were not only not funny, they didn’t make sense. (It may have been true that this particular group of Lutherans didn’t appreciate humor in preaching, even if it were understandable!) Although the sermon made sense in English, I failed to communicate the gospel well in this, my first attempt, to preach across languages and cultures.

Since then I have developed a deep interest in communication through interpreters. I’ve had the privilege to study and practice the art through teaching homiletics at Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary and serving as a volunteer missionary, preaching and teaching homiletics in locations such as Hong Kong, Sumatra in Indonesia, Liberia in West Africa, Germany, Honduras, Brazil, Jamaica, Argentina, Uruguay, and Surinam.

In this article, I share a little about what I have learned.

The myth about humor

A joke from the preacher’s own culture and language will rarely translate effectively into another culture. Funny experiences met while learning the indigenous culture are, however, fun for preacher and listener alike.

One myth declares that humor won’t translate. Not true. It’s the origin of the humorous situation that makes the difference. Jokes that have a punch line from the speaker’s culture probably will flop, but humorous experiences in the different culture can be enjoyed by all. For example,

• struggling with word meanings or ways of doing things. It’s most humorous when the joke hangs on the preacher;

• saying the wrong thing in the new language;

• misunderstanding the language and its idioms;

• misunderstanding the cultural customs.

While lecturing and living at the Augustana Hochschule in Neuendettelau, Germany, I wanted to purchase a pair of leather pants for my wife. In the dining hall I tried to discover if such were lined with fabric, as I was sure Carol would want them. In my limited German I told a girl wearing a similar type: “I would like to see what’s inside your pants.” What sounded inappropriate merely came across that way due to my limited knowledge of German.

Narrative preaching

Stories from the indigenous culture work exceptionally well when woven throughout the sermon as extended metaphors. They are well received and remembered by your audience who appreciates your effort to learn them. Even as you tell your story, local interpreters can polish it as they translate for your listeners. On the other hand, narratives from your own culture are not well understood and often puzzle the audience to the degree that they distract from the gospel message.

The preacher’s own story is only moderately effective, and then only if local phrases and indigenous descriptions are used. We must remember that the preacher’s use of a personal faith story has yet to be accepted or seen as acceptable practice in many cultures outside the United States. These cultures have been taught, as we were forty years ago, not to share oneself in the pulpit believing that speaking of self lacks humility and distracts from a polemic message. The lowest risk narrative use is the Bible story. Jesus’ parables and miracles, if retold well and seated in the present culture, become effective. Perhaps that’s what makes them so extraordinary.

If feeling brave, we can try telling a Bible story while putting its setting in the contemporary culture. It often will delight listeners that you tried.

Sharing what you have experienced in the present culture always works. If it is something negative, say it in a way as to indicate that our two cultures share a similar problem where the gospel needs to be applied, rather than in any judgmental tone indicating we are any better.

Stories in which preachers tell of certain struggles they have experienced and they did not come out as the hero or heroine are sometimes not understood. Preachers could then be described as “wounded healers,” and the congregation may see them, instead, as having a terrible weakness and asking for help. Use caution here.

Stories from local newspapers or ones related to you by the interpreter or an elder will work very well. You must retell them and not assume they are well known to your listeners. Take time to research the local lore; these stories will be well accepted as you use them in your sermon.

Here are some examples of how to organize a sermon using local history as narrative:

1. Begin the local story.

2. Relate the gospel truth using scripture.

3. Continue the story as an example.

4. Give an up-to-date application of the gospel.

5. Finish the local story.

6. Take some action steps from the gospel.

7. Frame it (return to opening) or conclude.


1. Tell most of the story.

2. Draw an analogy to the gospel.

3. Call for specific action to be taken.

4. Tell the end of the story.

In Jamaica, a gold mine of local history stories can be found that make effective narratives. For instance, there had once been a governor who wanted to stop the offshore piracy. He offered what was called “an act of grace,” which meant that if the pirate would hang up his sword and boots, he would be given land and so many gold coins to start a new way of life. That narrative worked well in Kingston at the Baptist church to announce the gospel of God’s undeserved grace and the chance to give up old ways and start anew.

Extended metaphor

Lending themselves to moves or points in the sermon, local metaphors work well while those from other cultures, including your own, may not be useful. It just takes too much verbiage to explain a metaphor foreign to the audience.

Try learning some well-used and accepted phrases from the indigenous culture and utilize them throughout the sermon. Including these will help the listener remember the theme and respect you for making the effort to learn small bits of the language.

While on the island of Sumatra I employed this technique often. I learned at a Batak “Hula Hula” (celebration) that they repeat after each speech the phrase “Imatutu,” meaning “may it be true.” Later I preached a sermon on the Beatitudes as recorded in Matthew and sprinkled it with Imatutu to the delight of the Batak congregation. Six months later young people wrote to me and used the phrase again and again as a way of remembering our sharing of the gospel with them.

Using different interpretations of a custom or phrase applied to theological experience can be called “good homiletics” to reach across culture and language and can provide for good humor as well. The Bataks of Sumatra, after shaking your hand, will touch their chest over the heart.

Noticing this custom led to the many meanings it could have within the context of the gospel. Heart-touch and God’s love came together for us all.

One warning about extended metaphors: We must use caution, as the metaphor can be so compelling and attention-getting that it crushes the gospel message. This is true in our own culture and even more so in a culture other than our own because the listeners are rarely accustomed to their use at all.

Sermon plots and organization

The homiletical plot that works best for me when preaching across culture and language involves the listeners’ reactions. My own modification of Richard C. Borden’s “magic formula” for persuasive speaking1 is built on the theory that there are predictable reactions in listeners to verbal presentations of which we must be aware if we want to communicate effectively. Borden claims it is so simple you could write it on your thumbnail:

1. Ho hum!

2. Why bring that up?

3. For instance?

4. So what?

Therefore, we can build our sermon on the following moves in response to what our listeners are thinking:

1. Get the attention of the listeners right away (fire).

2. Make a transition between the attention and the focus (bridge).

3. Give the focus of the message (point and scripture text).

4. Give an example of the truth communicated (example).

5. Tell your own witness to the gospel (witness).

6. Give first-action steps to be taken (so what?).

7. Close by returning to step one (frame).2

The next-to-the-last step in the above formula, the one often omitted and the most diffi cult, calls for a close-to-the-ground application of what has been proclaimed. We need to ask advice of local people to be sure we have done this well. Our interpreter will be a good person to consult.

When we get those many requests to speak or preach impromptu in another culture, knowing this formula adds an additional bonus as we already have an outline to use.

Some tips about preaching

Here, then, are some additional tips from a preacher who tries so hard to do this complicated, delicate task:

1. Learn some indigenous words and phrases you can use even though you have an interpreter. At least, use them when signaling your sermon moves. At most, repeat a few phrases over and over throughout the sermon’s content. Use the local language for key theological words.

2. Something visual from the preacher’s culture can work well or really fl op—a high gamble.

3. If we are uncertain of a local symbol or visual, we should understand it before using it during delivery of the sermon. It’s wise to consult your interpreter as to any possible emotional baggage attached to the symbol. The Buddhist reversed swastika is a good example of this kind of tricky concept.

4. When using an interpreter:

• Avoid all theological jargon; keep it close to the ground.

• Establish a rhythm with the interpreter.

• Check out humor ahead of time.

• Content should be about one-third less to allow for interpretation time.

• Speak slowly, but have an enthusiasm as if the interpreter weren’t there.

• Encourage the interpreter to mimic your excitement, change of pace, voice inflections, and the use of muted gestures.

• Begin with the local language as a greeting, prayer, or first sentence. Close in the same way.

• Provide your interpreter an outline ahead of time, but not a manuscript.

5. Preach as though your listeners understand your language so your interpreter can translate your gestures, facial expressions, voice inflections, and body language, as well as your vocabulary. Have the interpreter stand on the opposite side of your hand that normally makes most of your gestures.

6. Remember, most cultures characteristically read the text at first, then they pray before the actual sermon. Many cultures are also accustomed to a three-point sermon.

7. It works very well to draw something on a chalkboard or newsprint while preaching. While some may think this distracts, I find it very effective.

8. Try a “people sermon” where a committee of six or seven help prepare the sermon concepts. While in Sumatra, the Batak Christians loved helping me prepare my sermon ideas and delighted to hear the sermon they had a hand in preparing.

9. Simplicity is your best communication tool.3 Sometimes other cultures see in us a certain vocabulary inflation that shows superior education. We must demonstrate a different attitude in our preaching. Jesus’ preaching sets a good example for us.

10. Be sure to affirm and express your own appreciation for the culture and your desire not to offend it.

11. Resist the temptation and safety of being overly vague and general so as to not offend. Focus on the “so what?” in the particular culture where you are.

12. Be careful about using examples and stories from a culture foreign to your hearers. Be sensitive to your hearers, for they are also a part of God’s worldwide family.

13. Local history stories will almost always work and give good credibility for the preacher.4

14. A special message to the children will surprise and be very novel in most cultures.

15. The sermon in the format of a letter from you or someone in your culture to them can be very well received.

One night I was preaching in the Liberian village of Begalata with a flashlight beam on my face and one on my Kpelle interpreter, John Manawu. About halfway through the sermon we developed a rhythm back and forth. Mimicking my voice inflections and gestures, he failed to stop his Kpelle and went on and on without waiting for my English. I reached over and tugged John’s elbow to remind him that he was the interpreter and not the preacher! The listeners who could see what had happened roared with laughter.

This incident is a good example that not all preaching across cultures and languages need be uninteresting or ineffective. Nor must we sweat salt and sand to do it. By working carefully with a good interpreter and following some basic principles, we can present the gospel across cultural divides in an effective manner.

1 Borden, Public Speaking—As Listeners Like It! (New York and London: Harper Brothers, 1935).

2 For additional explanation of this formula’s use and an example sermon see Jerry Schmalenberger,
The Preacher’s Edge (Lima, OH: C.S.S. Publishing, Inc., 1996), 45–53, 117–128.

3 Martin Luther advised, “He who teaches most simply, childishly, popularly … that’s the best preacher. I like it to be easy and earthy. But now if it is debate you’re looking for, come into my classroom.”

4 For the author’s further explanation of this type of sermon see Jerry Schmalenberger, The Preacher’s
Edge (Lima, OH: C.S.S. Publishing, Inc., 1996), 69–73.



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Jerry Schmalenberger, DMin, is the retired president of Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary, Berkeley, California, United States. He is now serving as a Global Mission Volunteer for the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, presently teaching practical theology in Hong Kong, China, and Sumatra, Indonesia.

January 2008

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